House Speaker Mike Busch put Del. Frank Turner in charge of the House subcommittee that deals with gaming issues because he knew Howard County would never have a gaming facility and Turner could be "an unbiased voice" and "a fair broker."
Turner's fairness was put to the test last week as state legislators convened in Annapolis for a special session on gambling expansion.
The Maryland General Assembly gave final approval early Wednesday, Aug. 15 to a bill that would add table games and a sixth casino inPrince George's County to the state's gambling program, if approved by the voters on the November ballot.
The gambling expansion legislation narrowly escaped the House of Delegates, as the 71-58 vote was just enough needed to pass the bill.
"I think the biggest issue to many people, including Frank … was the addition of the sixth site and the fairness to the counties that already made a commitment to the program," Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, said.
For years, Turner, a Columbia Democrat, has expressed his opinion that the state should not add new gambling sites before the five already authorized casinos are up and running. So it probably came as a shock to many that Turner voted in favor of the expansion bill.
"I was in a very difficult position," Turner said. "There were a lot of moving parts."
One of the main elements is Turner's position as chairman of the House Finance Resource Subcommittee, a post he has held since 2007. Because gambling bills fall under his subcommittee, Turner is expected to defend any that go to the floor.
It was Turner's responsibility to defend Gov. Martin O'Malley's bill on the sixth casino and table games before the House Ways and Means Committee and then defend the bill, as amended by the committee, on the House floor.
"I spent maybe six hours plus considering over 50 different amendments between the committee and the floor, killing off all those amendments, accepting those that were friendly amendments," Turner.
After all that work explaining to his colleagues why they should vote for the bill, Turner said he couldn't turn around and vote against it.
"I've never seen in the 18 years I've served but one person defend a bill on the floor and then vote against it," he said.
Busch agreed that was not an option.
"You can't be out there defending a bill in front of everyone else and then voting it against yourself," he said.
Turner's only option, Busch said, would have been to recuse himself from being chair of the subcommittee.
But in reality, that wasn't an option either, as Turner explained it.
"We all serve in jobs and we all have positions that we may not always agree (with what we're asked to do), but that doesn't give you the option to walk away ... I didn't see that as a realistic option (just) because I didn't like the bill for me to walk away and not try to make it the best bill I could," Turner said.
Asked if he could have delegated someone else on his subcommittee to defend the bill, Turner said: "I think if I had picked somebody else that would have caused more chaos."
Once Turner decided he was going to do what the job demanded of him, he went into the process aiming to amend the bill so it would be more acceptable to his colleagues in the House.
"Frank worked very hard to try to help with that balance and broker that compromise between the House and the Senate," Busch said.
When the bill came out of Turner's committee, it was heavily amended. Among the amendments were lower tax rates for casino operators — lower than the existing 67 tax rate on slots and lower than the rates suggested in O'Malley's original bill.
"If you want to have all six facilities survive than you have to do something with the tax rate," Turner said.
"It's better to have 50 percent of something than 100 percent of nothing."
Though some may disagree, Turner said he believes the bill as the House amended it, which was the final version, ensures "all of them ought to be able to survive over the long term."
The House may be get blamed for lowering the tax rate, Turner said, but "if we had killed the bill and didn't let it pass, then the Senate would have spent the next several years blaming the house for the shortfall in the budget."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun